Gear Selection: Bear Canisters

The two of us have degrees in engineering so when it comes to selecting and optimizing our gear we often draw on that background to help with the selection process.    When gear is purely performance based with less dependence on comfort or fit then it lends itself to that kind of selection process quite well.

Why Use These Methods to Select Bear Canisters?

While there is certainly some “soft” or immeasurable requirements in bear canister selection, they are generally dominated by stats and numbers.  The main requirements for a bear canisters are:

  • low mass (minimize)
  • acceptable cost (threshold)
  • high or acceptable volume (threshold)
  • meets regulation (binary – yes or no)

These are pure numbers and can be optimized and used in the selection process.  In addition to those requirements you should also take into account the following:

  • ease of use/ difficulty to open
  • security against other animals (not bears)
  • ease to pack

These are generally what I would consider to be immeasurable.  You can’t really grade these parameters in an honest, non-subjective way. As engineers we try, but we almost always acknowledge how much of a “fudge factor” these provide.  I like to take these case by case and not fool myself with grading these values.

Collecting Data

So to use the data to rank the canisters, first you actually need the data.  This is pretty simple to do. Most websites have this information available.   When they are not available you can pull data from product reviews or even buy something, weigh or measure it, then return it.

We collected the below data on some bear canister options.  We limited our selection to canisters that we could purchase reasonably easily as well as canisters that were likely to be approved to be used on the trails we plan on hiking.

Table of Bear Canister Data

Table of Bear Canister Data

Criteria

Already partially covered above, we have some requirements and some criteria for selection:

  • Low mass (minimize)
  • Cost should not be above $150 per unit
  • Be capable of carrying a week (5-7 days) of food for two people at a time
  • Be allowed to be used on the JMT

Selection

To select the bear canisters we generated a few plots of some parameters based on the criteria.

Mass per Cost vs Capacity

Mass per Cost vs Capacity – Minimize Mass/ Cost for Capacity Above 10 days

Starting with the capacity, we put together some combinations that could make sense based on the size of our packs.  Then mass per cost is plotted against capacity.  By minimizing the mass/ cost ratio for canisters with capacities above 10 days, this let us count how many options we have.  The above plot is a little simplified, but we could continue to put together combinations of canisters to get enough combinations that meet the cost, mass and capacity requirements. In the above plot, the orange X satisfies these requirements the best. The blue dot meets the capacity requirements but isn’t the best for the mass/ cost ratio.

 

Cost vs Mass per Volume

Cost vs Mass Per Volume – Both Parameters Should be Minimized

Next we plotted cost vs mass/ volume.  For this you want to minimize cost as well as minimize the mass/ volume ratio.  As you can see, as mass decreases the cost increases. This is to be expected. When evaluating this curve we want to ride the curve as far left as possible without going above our total cost requirement (approximately $150).  Then that option needs to be evaluated against the capacity requirement above.

On this plot, the orange X certainly has the lowest mass/ volume ratio but it also has the greatest cost.  Unless we can sort out the extra cash this is no longer an option.

CONCLUSION

When evaluating both plots together the blue dot is the option presented that has the lowest mass/ volume ratio while having a capacity above 10 days and a cost below $150.

The blue dot in the above charts represents combining both BearVault canisters (BV500 & BVSolo).

Of course the above charts hide a few decisions made based on the “soft” requirements, but they still guided us in making an informed decision.  We had to take into account availability and lead times (we purchased our bear canisters immediately before our PCT hike in 2014).  We also took into account the size of our packs, and general expectation of how fragile a canister could be if dropped.  Also, ease of use was considered. The BearVaults can be opened / unlocked by pressing firmly. Other canisters need a coin or screwdriver to open them up.  The BearVault also is transparent, allowing for you to easily see the contents. This is very helpful after a long day on the trail.

Overall we are pleased with our decision.  The Wild-Ideas Expedition (orange X above) was definitely the lightest per volume, but getting it cost $200 more than getting both BearVaults. That would have only given us a reduction in mass of 200 grams. Saving this money let us focus on reducing our pack weight even further by getting new sleep systems and upgrading other gear.

 

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Gear Review: MEC Scout Zip Pants

I’m a small guy. That’s just how it is.  So when it comes to finding clothing that fits me, either for hiking or for everyday wear, I am just used to more often than not compromising on one aspect (size, style, fit, comfort, colour, etc).  I have a 27-29 inch waist, so finding technical clothing that actually fits me correctly can be a major challenge.

After years of looking for hiking pants that actually fit me, I’ve started thinking out of the box a little.  I mean, it’s not that out of ordinary, but until this past year I never thought to look at youth sizes for technical clothing.  I just never thought they’d be good enough. One day, after being fed up with my old Patagonia pants that never quite fit right and after spending months actively trying on pants from many of the major brands, I stumbled into the youth section and came across the MEC Scout Zip Pants.  I’ve had these since the start of the year so I have put together my impressions of them. I also previously wrote an actual product review on the MEC website a while back, so this review may have a lot of overlap in content.

Summary:

I am an adult male (late 20s) who has a 27-29 inch waist, and am very impressed with these pants. I did not have high expectations for youth technical clothing, but these meet most of my requirements and do not stand out as kids clothes (so I don’t look ridiculous on the trail!).

Fit:

As an adult buying these for myself I can’t say much about whether this fits true to size or not for a child. However, I can say that these fit me very well. I have a 27-29 inch waist and have struggled for years to find a pair of hiking pants that properly fit me. Most men’s hiking pants that I have come across that claim to fit a 28 inch waist are actually a 30 with a belt loop or a snap to cinch it smaller. That can be very uncomfortable on the trail and add extra weight (or extra belts, etc).

The MEC Scout pants fit more or less perfectly around the waist. I have a size 14 and sometimes use a belt, but can get away without one, especially since there are adjustment straps on the inside of the waist that allow for small amounts of adjustment.  You can tighten or loosen the pants waist using a very light, small strap and button. This mechanism is much more comfortable than the ones I typically encounter on adult hiking pants that adjust from a 30 inch waist to a 28. The adjustment straps on the MEC Scout don’t cause any bunching and they tighten the waist band evenly around your waist. There are belt loops, and the belt loops actually will hold a belt comfortably if you need one or prefer to wear one for other reasons. I wear a Patagonia friction belt, partly because the belt itself can be useful to have as an extra strap that can be used in a pinch on your pack or as an emergency tourniquet or to support a splint if you get injured on the trail.

 

Adjustable Waist Allows for Some Adjustment

Waist Band Allows for Some Adjustment

The lower legs are a little wide near the bottom, but that seems to be because they are convertibles. I can unzip the legs and carefully take them off without removing my boots. I am considering taking in around the ankle a bit so they don’t collect mud when hiking without gaiters or rain pants, but that will make it more challenging to remove the legs when I convert them to shorts. I’ve also been thinking about adding a couple straps near the ankles with velcro or buttons to cinch in the outside of the pants. Regardless, these pants do fit under my rain pants (Outdoor Research Helium, Small), but they feel a little bunched around the lower legs. Not uncomfortably so, but enough that I was concerned the first time I wore them together that they would ride up my legs when hiking. Thankfully that did not happen and these are actually quite comfortable under rain pants once I got used to it.

Features:

These pants are a little heavy (approx 390 g for size 14) compared to what I am used to, but they still dry quickly and are just a little warm when it is cool (they block wind rather well, but still breath OK). They are convertibles so when it gets warm enough I can easily zip them off, but so far this (very, very warm) winter I have not needed to convert them to shorts when hiking. Now that warm weather is starting, I have found them just a hint too warm when exposed or when pushing it up a steep hill.  I’ll need to be a bit more proactive about converting them to shorts before I get too warm; I am still getting used to having the option.

Considering their weight, it’s fairly unsurprising that they are actually pretty tough. They are not as fragile as some of my more light weight clothing and gear (and not nearly as fragile as my old hiking pants which had been repaired many, many times) so I don’t worry if I have to scramble up some rocks or even if I just want to sit on a ledge and take in a view. The fabric is fairly stretchy and forgiving. I have not felt restricted at all when hiking or kneeling. The pants are thick and a bit heavy compared to more lightweight options, but I can still pack them up smaller than my rain jacket. Of course, packing size doesn’t really matter if you are just wearing one pair of pants on a trip or a hike.

The pockets are actually very well designed, which surprised me for youth clothing. The front pockets are deep enough to fit a wallet, or a small camera or phone. The back pockets are a little small (maybe a little tight) but can still fit small items. The side pocket isn’t huge, but it is large enough to fit a fairly large, flat-ish object. Small folded maps, phone, camera – that kind of thing. The clasp on the side pocket is well designed. There is only one snap, but the pocket retains whatever you have in it because the opening is a little tight.

Pocket Design Retains Objects

Pocket Design Retains Objects With Only One Button

The bottom of the rear pockets are mesh, allowing the pockets and the pants to breath.  This also provides drainage if the pants become wet (rain, or being submerged).

Conclusion:

Overall, these are pretty stellar pants. I’d get them in a second for a youth and I am very happy with them as an adult. I’ll be wearing these on the JMT this summer and I fully expect these to last me more than a few years and many, many miles. These are not “kids pants”, these are pants that fit kids (and of course, smaller adults). I’ve learned there is a difference. It’s just too bad I didn’t think to look in the youth section for hiking pants a few years ago…

Closing Notes:

Although I have not had much success with Lululemon sizes (most of the mens clothes are giant), I recently found a pair of tights for exercising in that fit me very well. So it’s not all bad.

I am still looking for adult hiking pants that are a little more lightweight than the Scout pants. I love the Scouts, but I am always pushing to get a balance between gear that’s durable and light weight.

I love my Outdoor Research Helium pants.  I haven’t had much opportunity to shop for more OR pants locally, but based on my experience with those rain pants I will continue to look closer at general hiking pants.

If you have any suggestions or success stories for small men’s pants, then let me know in the comments! I’d love to get your suggestions.

Hubba Hubba NX – Upgrade Achieved!

We bought our original Hubba Hubba like two months before it was recalled in Canada.  We used it on a few trips and eventually realized there was a recall.  Although we weren’t worried about the tent catching fire (we tend not to cook in our tent…), the NX ended up being released shortly after we learned of the recall. We realized that this was our opportunity to upgrade.

We dug around quite a bit to make sure the NX is worth it.  After all, if we returned our Hubba Hubba we couldn’t get it back. So we couldn’t risk returning our amazing tent if the NX had any flaws.  Thankfully the reviews of the NX had been very promising.  Looking at the design changes we realized that overall the tent was improved.  Some of our complaints about the design have been addressed (proximity of mesh to zipper, rainfly ventilation, improved grommet design) and we didn’t see any changes that made the tent less livable in any way.  The NX also has the added bonus of being lighter, a little easier to set up (while maintaining the same pole configuration), and it’s also a little easier to see in the dark.

Since MEC is awesome, we called and they told us we could bring the tent in and we’d get a credit for the return so we could get the NX at minimal cost.  I checked the availability of the NX over the phone and it had plenty of inventory in store and online.

The NX sold out more or less immediately at MEC.  There was a bunch when I called, then we came in a day or two later to exchange our old tent and by that time MEC was backordered.

So we just held onto our Hubba Hubba until about a month ago, waiting for more inventory.  And now we’ve got one.  We’ve already set it up in our (tiny) living room and it definitely looks promising.  We’ll give it a go on the Sunshine Coast Trail and let you know how it goes.

In Defense of Trekking Poles

I’ll admit it. We’ve started to use trekking poles.

While many people will be in support of this decision, some are likely to ask “why?”.  The old me certainly wouldn’t understand this decision.  Maybe I’m getting old, but I have to admit that I appreciate using them.

Original Perceptions

I used to think that using trekking poles while hiking was cheating on the trail.  I perceived using them as a sign of weakness and lack of fitness or technical ability to handle challenging terrain.  I also considered them a way for people to accelerate their pace – going much faster than I could imagine as an enjoyable pace.  For how we hike, pace is important since it throttles how much of the scenery we can take in (one of the main reasons we go on hikes in the first place!). Going too quickly means you can miss a lot. Too slow means you stay in one place too long. I’ve never really understood hitting the trail at a very fast pace.  This perception of hiking poles, and what kind of person you are if you use them, was so strong that when we did our first section of the PCT I remember thinking to myself “gee… trekking poles” when we saw someone pass by. I remember the two of us chuckling about it on the trail and lightly shaking our heads.  However, throughout that hike my opinion started to change.  I’ve found that trekking poles aren’t just useful to keep you from killing your knees; they have other benefits I never considered as well.

Trekking Poles Save Your Knees

The most obvious reason for using trekking poles is that they help distribute the load and as a result they can “save your knees”.  They help both when ascending and descending, although when things are a little flat that is where it can get a little awkward.

Going uphill: you can use the poles to both stabilize yourself and to help pull yourself up.

Going downhill: the poles can be used to control the rate you are going down and the overall impact you make with the ground on each step.  I can’t understate how useful the poles are going downhill.  While I can definitely descend a technical trail without poles, it’s just much more comfortable to use the poles. Especially by the end of a day of hammering downhill when my legs start to get a little tired and I am more likely to misstep.  Climbing down large rocks or drops is nice – I can put the poles down firmly and lower myself using my upper body strength instead of having to slide down or make a leap.  Like I said before, each individual time you do this it doesn’t seem like much, but at the end of the day it makes a huge difference.

 

Trekking Poles Keep You From Tumbling

Trekking poles are also good at adding stability.  This is also an obvious one, but some of the specific cases may not be so obvious.

Boardwalks: I never considered this before, but I’ve found the poles to be useful to help stabilize myself on wet boardwalks.  Stepping onto a wet boardwalk and going for a slide is a terrible feeling.  Boardwalks can be dangerous (slippery, unstable) but this danger is totally kept under the radar. They just seem to be stable and clean compared to the soft ground but the only times I’ve ever had a hiking companion get injured on a trail is on a boardwalk. I’ve had plenty of close calls myself.

Loose Rocks:  Loose rocks or stones can be exhausting; it takes a lot of effort to just avoid a rolled ankle. A nice feature of trekking poles is that you can “test” out larger stones before stepping on them to make sure they truly are stable.

Slippery Terrain:  Much like the boardwalks and loose rocks, the trekking poles in general help save yourself from falling.

Other Uses

Parting the Sea: I tend to find sloughing through thick, tall grass or plants to be exhausting, especially when they are wet.  While I have never used a trekking pole to help push the brushes away from me as I hike through them, I have used sticks.  This also keeps tall, wet grasses from soaking your clothes.

River Crossing:  This is where I think I will find a lot of use.  Crossing larger streams or rivers can be challenging without a stick of some sort (I simply refuse to do it without some additional support).  The trekking pole just guarantees you have a stick available that is the right height and strength to get it done.  I haven’t crossed any larger streams with my trekking poles yet, but I have found some use crossing smaller creeks on day hikes.

Other Uses: Of course there are plenty of other uses for the trekking poles. We’ve looked at getting an ultralight tent, and use our trekking poles as tent poles.  We love our Hubba Hubba, so we probably won’t do this right away, but the idea is tempting.

Not Just Dead Weight

While I’m sure nothing I’ve said here comes as a surprise to anyone, I still think I need to say that: yes, I am sold on the trekking poles. We will be using them on our multiday trips from now on. They aren’t just single use items that are dead weight all of the other times. And if you get a light enough set on sale (we got the Black Diamond UltraDistance Z-Poles on sale at MEC) then there really is very little weight penalty for something that helps negate the impact of carrying a pack all day.